Wednesday, 6 May 2015

"Britain is Open for Business" (part 2)

Continuing on from part 1

Britain is open for business.” this is a phrase that comes up again and again in the media, either as a cliché from journalists or a direct soundbite from an MP. It is usually linked to economic reports that show growth in the UK economy, or a piece of legislation that makes international trade easier (or less regulated) is going ahead. The emphasis is that the UK is a company and that that company is profitable. ...
This is where I start to really stretch the metaphor. I want you to picture an actual physical marketplace: perhaps your town has an indoor market or a weekly produce market. I'll be keeping St George's Market in Belfast in mind throughout this. Now lets start thinking about what makes a good market and how that applies to national economics. Just trust me and go along for the ride.

Safe and secure

A good market is somewhere where stall holders can leave their merchandise overnight and be relatively confident that it will still be there in the morning. During trading they don't expect to experience much in the way of stock loss, or other significant crime. They know that, should something be stolen or they are assaulted or any other crime is committed that market staff and security will help deal with the issue appropriately.
The same goes for people visiting a market. They don't want to be mugged, or pick-pocketed. They don't want to be harassed or assaulted. They don't want to have a stall-holder overcharge them, refuse to give them change or steal their bank details (it's 2015, markets have card readers). Should anything happen we want to be sure that security or the police are involved, that our complaints are listened to with care and diligence and that appropriate measures will be taken. In the case of a stall-holder committing a crime against a customer that may be a criminal charge but it may also include a ban on future trading.
The UK market place has a police force, a criminal justice system and a legislature that includes dozens of regulating bodies, especially when you start taking in to account local authorities. Now I was raised to be fairly pro police and I have to say, by and by that confidence remains. I am aware however, that for certain groups of people and for certain crimes, policing and justice aren't always carried out fairly. Young black men for example are more likely to be stopped and searched than any other group. In fact racism in the UK criminal system is well reported and documented if you want to go and read about it. In more recent years this has extended to Asian men, and people who are not UK nationals. There are also certain crimes which are not treated with the sensitivity or even handedness they should be: rape and sexual assault have some shocking statistics regarding how many cases are taken to trial, how many end in prosecution and the length of prison sentences handed down. Rape is also one of the few crimes were the burden of proof falls so heavily on the shoulders of the victims and there is an uphill struggle to even convince police that a crime has been committed. Policing and justice is clearly not as fair and even as it could be.
Then there are other parts of the legislature: banking regulation, taxation, welfare and social security, wage and employment law, immigration law (relating to the above section on diversity) which are skewed to benefit a very small percentage of the population and to cripple the rest. To shun, marginalise, refuse to help and at times actively hurt large parts of your market in order to benefit a small few. Is that actually leading to a successful market or is that leading to a market which can't be sustained whilst a few stallholders walk away smiling (with the credit card details of their unrepresented customers).

Atmosphere and entertainment

The best markets, the ones you make a special trip to, and drag your friends to even when you don't have much cash to spend are the ones with a great atmosphere. That can come about through the sheer number of people, their diversity and the variety of things on offer, but the best, the ones that really stand out, have more. A live band playing, stall holders who are known for their banter, regular cooking demos, community poetry or stories, photography competitions. Yes, these are all things I have seen in good markets. They don't take up much space, they might seem insignificant but they add so much to the experience. A customer who has a good time and enjoys the market is more likely to spend more while they are there, stay longer at each visit and visit more often. Arts and culture can be vital in creating this friendly and inviting atmosphere.
In the UK we have a well respected film and TV industry, exporting its products globally. There is a centuries old tradition of live theatre and since the 19th Century comedy has flourished. Music makes up a great part of national and regional identity from folk tradition through Mersey Beat, The Birmingham metal of the 70s and 80s, to the rap and dubstep scene in London. Then there is the art, poetry, design, fashion, debate and food that make the British populace truly passionate. As individual acts these can make a market place flourish and, on a national level, supporting and encouraging arts and culture can be the difference between a successful economy and a wasteland. Arts and culture make people happy content, and fulfilled and that leads to more productive workers, more output, and a more lively economy. It makes us attractive nationally – Northern Ireland's economy has had a boost from productions companies using their studios, in part due to good rates, but also because Northern Ireland has forged a reputation for being open-minded and enthusiastic about arts and culture. Healthy arts and culture is both conducive to and indicative of a healthy market.

Wider benefit

Lastly, good and successful markets aren't solely for profit. They are places where stall holders can trade and make a profit, and yes the market owners will take a profit themselves, usually by charging the stall holders a small fee. This means that markets are great at stimulating local economy, with numerous people profiting on different levels. But the benefits go far beyond that. Markets are often operated by local councils as a way of stimulating the local economy and providing a service for both small businesses, local citizens and tourists. They are aware of continuing heritage and commerce in a city and are often left clinging on during times of economic hardship when other store fronts may become too expensive for local businesses and their customers.
Markets generally are a focus of multinational activity, with different migrant groups mixing together and providing opportunities for people and products from across the globe to work side by side. In some areas they are a service that joins city and countryside together, bringing farmers and rural producers to a larger market and more literally some cities will operate special bus services on market days bringing disparate communities together. They can be venues for community outreach, such as cafés offering classes in nutritious cooking, or elderly socials. A Successful market is a bustling hub, which attracts other businesses to an area, regenerating high streets, filling office blocks, further boosting the economy and providing more jobs for local people. Busy and thriving towns, and those with a well supported arts scene via local market initiatives, attract tourists and other visitors, eventually attracting other businesses from further afield. A healthy, flourishing market will have healthy, flourishing visitors and this will have a positive effect on the wider area and population.

The UK government needs to stop positioning itself as a single entity open for business and start seeing the value that can be a thriving market. The global economic market and free market trading might be a world away from a Saturday farmer's market but I truly believe a lot can be learned from the basic principles of what makes a good market and what the value of a good market is. A successful market is about far more than profit. Yes, the books do need to balance, but the success of a market is not just the market owners’ bank balance but the overall satisfaction of everybody involved in the that market, from its chairperson, to the stall holders, the visitors and the person who sweeps the floor.
I'm waiting for the UK Marketplace to be open.

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